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Kentucky by Heart: Bourbon County native painted vivid picture of Eastern Ky. life through his novels

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

Even for those outside our state, the two novels, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, could well have a connection to many readers, if only for their catchy titles. Both books were notable across America in the early 1900s, though the setting for them was in Kentucky and the books were written by a Kentuckian.

An historical marker in Bourbon County indicates the birthplace of novelist John Fox, Jr.

Years ago, I frequently drove Highway #627 on my way from my former home in Winchester to my parents in northern Kentucky. I often noticed a road marker indicating the place where author John Fox, Jr. was born in 1862, at Stony Point, in Bourbon County. He attended the Stony Point Academy there, which was directed by his father, and later Transylvania College. I recall having only a foggy notion of Fox’s literary contributions at the time, but recently I’ve taken a deeper interest in his work.

He made a pretty big splash, indeed.

I found that this native Kentuckian, raised in the central part of the state, was also heavily versed in the lives and folkways of mountain people, and particularly those in eastern Kentucky. His awareness occurred and gained intensity after he stayed in Jellico, Tennessee, in the summer of 1882 while a student at Harvard. His brothers had mining interests in the small Tennessee town, and Fox keenly observed the local people while there.

A few years later, in 1888, his family moved their mining operation and residence to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, near Kentucky’s iconic Cumberland Gap. While there, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia, “Fox joined a local vigilante group that succeeded in bring order to a lawless region.” You may contrast that, somewhat, with the fact that he did walking tours of the nearby Kentucky counties of Letcher, Harlan, Leslie, and Perry because of his interest in the people of the Appalachian region.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Interestingly, a former teacher of his while a student at Transylvania College, James Lane Allen, inspired Fox to write short stories of the people he got to know. Allen became a renowned contemporary writer of Fox and they are often linked in the public’s minds. In 1892, Fox published “A Mountain Europa,” his first short story. It was a hit and many noted national periodicals began publishing his literary pieces.

Soon, he began writing published books such as his first novel, A Cumberland Vendetta and Other Stories, which spoke of family feuding in the region, often part of Fox’s writing subjects. In 1903, his novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, burst forth on the public stage in a huge way. Some reports mention that it was the first in the U.S. to sell a million copies, though that has not been substantiated. The novel tells of an orphan boy, Chad, growing up in a tiny village in the mountains of eastern Kentucky called Kingdom Come before leaving for Lexington and learning “city ways.” Chad comes of age in a powerful, admirable way as he emerges into manhood. The story revolves around the abject divisiveness of the American Civil War set in Kentucky, and the story has also appeared as a play and motion picture.

Fox’s 1908 novel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, also brought high acclaim, though it was the last of his works to do so. It was a love story about a mining engineer from the Bluegrass Region whose work brought him to the mountains where he met an “uncultured” woman and they fell in love. With a background of family feuding, the book provides adventure, pathos, and yes, touching moments. The book, like Little Shepherd, was later adapted for the stage and movies, including silent versions.

In can be said that the work of John Fox, Jr., helped shine light on the Appalachian region culture of the U.S. at a time when it was even more isolated than today. William S. Ward, in his book, The Literary History of Kentucky, said that “Fox seemed more important in his own day than he does at present, but even yet the average reader is likely to agree that his stories are eminently readable.”

A friend of mine, Shad Baker, of Jenkins, sees Fox’s two big novels plus another, Heart of the Hills, as both readable and compelling for today. “I’ve read all three,” he said, “and they essentially tell the story of a mountain boy that struggles, goes off to the city and comes back to the mountains to live his life. Good reads, all. I was surprised they could be my own story.”
To be fair, Eagle Brosi, of Waynesboro, Virginia, considers Fox’s writing in a less than positive way, saying: “John Fox, Jr., is maybe the person who popularized the stop-start racist speech patterns that were used to characterize Native Americans as having low intelligence. And he clearly thought mountain people were genetically inferior to everyone else.”

I would say that the best way to figure out what is fair to say about the work of Fox, Jr., would be to spend a great deal of time in the study of his writings. there is always room for discussion about such issues.

John Fox, Jr., died in 1919 while on a fishing trip in Norton, Virginia. Visitors can visit a library recognizing the author at the Duncan Tavern in Paris, Kentucky, not far from where he was born.

Sources: The Kentucky Encyclopedia; The Literary History of Kentucky; Wikipedia; and exploreuk.uky.edu

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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